North Atlantic Right Whale
About the Species
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered large whale species; the latest preliminary estimate suggests there are fewer than 350 remaining. Two other species of right whales exist: the North Pacific right whale, which is found in the North Pacific Ocean, and the Southern right whale, which is found in the southern hemisphere. Right whales are baleen whales, feeding on copepods (tiny crustaceans) by straining huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates, which act like a sieve.
By the early 1890s, commercial whalers had hunted North Atlantic right whales to the brink of extinction. (They got their name from being the "right" whales to hunt because they floated when they were killed.) Whaling is no longer a threat, but they have never recovered to pre-whaling numbers, and human interactions still present the greatest danger to this species. Entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes are the leading causes of North Atlantic right whale mortality. Increasing ocean noise levels from human activities are also a concern since the noise may interfere with right whale communication and increase their stress levels.
NOAA Fisheries and our partners are dedicated to conserving and rebuilding the North Atlantic right whale population. We use a variety of innovative techniques to study, protect, and recover these endangered whales. We engage our partners, including the fishing and shipping industries, as we develop regulations and management plans that foster healthy fisheries and reduce the risk of entanglements, slow down vessel traffic, and reduce ocean noise.
North Atlantic right whales have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1970. The latest preliminary estimate suggests there are fewer than 350 remaining, with fewer than 100 breeding females. The number of new calves born in recent years has been below average.
They have experienced an ongoing Unusual Mortality Event since 2017. Thirty-four North Atlantic right whales have been documented dead and 16 seriously injured. This represents more than 10 percent of the population, which is a significant impact on an endangered species where deaths are outpacing births.
- Throughout Its Range
CITES Appendix I
- Throughout Its Range
- Throughout Its Range
- Throughout Its Range
North Atlantic right whales have stocky black bodies with no dorsal fins, and their blow spouts are shaped like a “V.” Their tails are broad, deeply notched, and all black with a smooth trailing edge. Their bellies may be all black or have irregularly shaped white patches. Pectoral flippers are relatively short, broad, and paddle-shaped. Calves are about 14 feet at birth and adults can grow to lengths of 52 feet.
Their heads have knobby white patches of rough skin, called callosities, which appear white because of whale lice (cyamids) covering their otherwise black skin. Each right whale has a unique pattern of callosities that scientists use to identify individual whales, an invaluable tool in tracking population size and health. Aerial and ship-based surveys and the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium’s photo-identification database maintained by our partners at the New England Aquarium help track individuals over the years.
Behavior and Diet
When viewing right whales, you might see these enormous creatures breaching and then crashing back down with a thunderous splash. You might also see them swimming along with their rostrum out of the water as they skim feed on dense patches of plankton. Right whales feed by opening their mouths while swimming slowly through large patches of copepods and other zooplankton. They filter out these tiny organisms from the water through their baleen, where the copepods become trapped in a tangle of hair-like material that acts like a sieve. Right whales feed anywhere from the water’s surface to the bottom of the water column.
Groups of right whales may be seen actively socializing at the water’s surface, known as surface-active groups, or SAGs. Mating and socializing occurs in SAGs, which are observed during all seasons and in all habitats.
Right whales communicate using low-frequency moans, groans, and pulses, which may maintain contact between individuals, communicate threats, signal aggression, or be used for other social reasons.
Where They Live
North Atlantic right whales primarily occur in Atlantic coastal waters on the continental shelf, although they also are known to travel far offshore, over deep water.
Right whales migrate seasonally and may travel alone or in small groups. In the spring, summer, and into fall, many of these whales can be found in waters off New England and further north into Canadian waters, where they feed and mate.
Each fall, some right whales travel more than 1,000 miles from these feeding grounds to the shallow, coastal waters of their calving grounds off of South Carolina, Georgia, and northeastern Florida, though migration patterns vary.
NOAA Fisheries has designated two areas as critical habitat for North Atlantic right whales. These areas provide important feeding, nursery, and calving habitat:
- Off the coast of New England (foraging area)
- Off the southeast U.S. coast from Cape Fear, North Carolina, to below Cape Canaveral, Florida (calving area)
Lifespan & Reproduction
Right whales can probably live for at least 70 years, but data on their average lifespan is limited since scientific monitoring of the species is fairly recent. Ear wax can be used to estimate age in right whales after they have died. Another way to determine lifespan is to look at groups of closely related species. There are indications that some species closely related to right whales may live more than 100 years. However, female North Atlantic right whales are now only living to around 45 years old and males only to around 65 years old. Such reduced lifespans are due to human-caused mortality, not old age.
In recent years, researchers have recorded more deaths among adult females than adult males, leading to a population with more males than females, a bias that is increasing over time. Females that undergo energetic stress from reproduction may be more susceptible than males to dying from chronic injuries such as those from entanglement or vessel strikes.
Female right whales become sexually mature at about age 10. They give birth to a single calf after a year-long pregnancy. Three years is considered a normal or healthy interval between right whale births. But now, on average, females are having calves every 6 to 10 years. Biologists believe that the additional stress caused by entanglement is one of the reasons that females are calving less often.
North Atlantic right whales face many threats, including entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, climate change—which may alter their migratory patterns and feeding areas—and the impacts of ocean noise on their ability to communicate, find food, and navigate.
Entanglement in fishing gear is one of the greatest threats to North Atlantic right whales. NOAA Fisheries and our partners estimate that over 85 percent of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once. Fishing gear can cut into a whale’s body, cause serious injuries, and result in infections and mortality. Even if gear is shed or removed through disentanglement efforts, the time spent entangled can severely stress a whale, weaken it, prevent it from feeding, and sap the energy it needs to swim, feed, and reproduce. Chronic entanglements are one reason scientists think that female right whales are having fewer calves and are taking longer to have calves.
Vessel strikes are another major threat to right whales. Their habitat and migration routes are close to major ports along the Atlantic coastline and often overlap with shipping lanes, making right whales vulnerable to collisions with vessels. These collisions can cause broken bones and massive internal injuries or cuts from propellers. Vessels of nearly any size can injure or kill a right whale. The faster a vessel is traveling when it hits a whale, the higher the likelihood of serious injury or death.
The changing climate, and more specifically oceanographic changes in the Northwest Atlantic, are key factors contributing to reduced reproduction and higher susceptibility to human-caused threats. Over the past decade, right whales have changed their distribution patterns, likely in response to changes in prey location and availability due to warming oceans. As their prey moved, the whales began spending more time in areas with fewer protections from vessel strikes and entanglements.
A dip in right whale births and lengthened calving intervals (from 3 to 5 years to 6 to 10 years) indicates that reproductively active females have struggled in recent years to find sufficient food resources to support pregnancy. As their environment changes, right whales will likely continue to modify their distribution and behavior to adapt, resulting in a more uncertain and unpredictable future for the species.
Ocean noise from human activities such as shipping, boating, construction, and energy exploration and development has increased in the Northwest Atlantic. Noise from these activities can interrupt the normal behavior of right whales and interfere with their communication. It may also reduce their ability to detect and avoid predators and human hazards, navigate, identify physical surroundings, find food, and find mates.
In the Spotlight
The North Atlantic right whale is NOAA Fisheries' newest Species in the Spotlight. This initiative is a concerted, agency-wide effort launched in 2015 to spotlight and save marine species that are among the most at risk of extinction in the near future.
North Atlantic right whales have been experiencing a population decline for more than a decade.
NOAA and our partners are continuing to prioritize stabilizing and preventing extinction of this species, and the Species in the Spotlight designation helps focus resources on these many efforts.
NOAA's Commitment to Right Whale Recovery
As the federal agency charged with recovering the North Atlantic right whale, we are committed to recovering the species by significantly reducing risks from entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes. The Marine Mammal Protection Act provides a structure, through the Take Reduction Process, for stakeholder voices to be heard and the opportunity for entanglement risk reduction innovation to come from the people who will be most affected by future regulatory action. Under the Endangered Species Act, we manage the threats that North Atlantic right whales face, including the risks of vessel strikes, to facilitate their recovery.
Species in the Spotlight Priority Actions
We developed a Species in the Spotlight 2021–2025 Priority Action Plan that builds on the recovery plan and details the focused efforts that are needed from 2021 to 2025. The identified priorities incorporate input from our North Atlantic Right Whale Northeast and Southeast U.S. Implementation Teams. These actions include:
- Protecting right whales from entanglement in fishing gear
- Protecting right whales from vessel strikes
- Investigating population abundance, status, distribution and health
- Collaborating with Canada on right whale recovery
- Improving our knowledge of additional factors limiting recovery
While North Atlantic right whales were only added to the Species in the Spotlight initiative in 2019, we have been working with our partners on helping this species’ recovery for two decades. A number of crucial steps we have taken to stop their decline since the Species in the Spotlight designation includes:
- In 2019, we reconvened the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, and are in the process of developing a new rule to reduce fishing gear entanglements expected to be in place in 2021.
- We announced a new “Right Whale Slow Zones” campaign in the Northeast U.S. asking all vessel operators to slow down or avoid areas for a 15-day period when right whales meet a visual or acoustic detection trigger.
- In 2020, we released a North Atlantic Right Whale Vessel Speed Rule Assessment report (PDF, 53 pages) that assessed the effectiveness of the 2008 vessel speed rules, and are accepting comments on the report through March 26, 2021.
- We have been working closely with fishermen on the development and testing of ropeless fishing gear for use in New England trap/pot fisheries.
- We are collaborating with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada on all matters related to the transboundary reduction of vessel strike and entanglement mortalities and serious injuries of North Atlantic right whales.
These are just some examples of the work we are doing.
For information on our many efforts, including our recovery plan, implementation teams, critical habitat designations, vessel strike reduction, fishing gear entanglement reduction, and stranding responses, to help North Atlantic right whales recover, visit our conservation and management page.
All North Atlantic right whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). They have been listed as endangered under the ESA since 1970 and are in danger of extinction throughout all of their range. NOAA Fisheries is working to recover this species in many ways.
Recovery Planning and Implementation
Under the ESA, NOAA Fisheries is required to develop and implement recovery plans for the conservation and survival of listed species. The ultimate goal of the North Atlantic Right Whale Recovery Plan is to recover the species, with an interim goal of down-listing its status from endangered to threatened.
The major actions recommended in the plan are:
- Reduce or eliminate injury and mortality caused by vessel collisions and fishing gear
- Protect habitats essential to the survival and recovery of the species
- Minimize effects of vessel disturbance
- Continue international ban on hunting and other directed take
- Monitor the population size and trends in abundance of the species
- Maximize efforts to free entangled or stranded right whales and acquire scientific information from dead specimens
The ESA authorizes NOAA Fisheries to appoint recovery teams to assist with the development and implementation of recovery plans. Two regional North Atlantic right whale recovery plan implementation teams—the Northeast U.S. Implementation Team and the Southeast U.S. Implementation Team—were established to assist with issues related to the status and conservation of right whales.
Critical Habitat Designation
Once a species is listed under the ESA, NOAA Fisheries evaluates and identifies whether any areas meet the definition of critical habitat. Those areas may be designated as critical habitat through a rulemaking process. The designation of an area as critical habitat does not create a closed area, marine protected area, refuge, wilderness reserve, preservation, or other conservation area; nor does the designation affect land ownership. Rather, federal agencies that undertake, fund, or permit activities that may affect these designated critical habitat areas are required to consult with NOAA Fisheries to ensure that their actions do not adversely modify or destroy designated critical habitat.
NOAA Fisheries designated critical habitat for the North Atlantic right whale in 1994 (59 FR 28805) and revised the designation in 2016 (81 FR 4838). Critical habitat for the North Atlantic right whale includes two areas—a foraging area in the Northeast and a calving area in the Southeast.
Reducing Vessel Strikes
The most common vessel-related threats to right whales are blunt force trauma and propeller cuts. Collisions between whales and large vessels often go unnoticed and unreported, even though whales can be injured or killed and vessels can sustain damage.
Reducing vessel speeds where whales are present, developing recommended shipping lanes outside of specific ports, making mariners aware when whales are around, and implementing a 500-yard “no-approach” safety zone around right whales are among the measures we use to reduce these threats.
Specifically, we have taken both regulatory and non-regulatory steps to reduce the threat of vessel collisions to North Atlantic right whales, including:
- Requiring vessels to slow down in specific areas during specific times (Seasonal Management Areas)
- Advocating for voluntary speed reductions in Dynamic Management Areas and Right Whale Slow Zones
- Recommending alternative shipping routes and areas to be avoided
- Modifying international shipping lanes
- Developing right whale alert systems
- Developing mandatory vessel reporting systems
- Increasing outreach and education
- Improving our stranding response
Implementing Vessel Speed Restrictions for North Atlantic Right Whales
The most effective way to reduce collision risk is to keep whales and vessels apart. If that is not possible, the next best option is for vessels to slow down and keep a lookout. There are several areas, known as Seasonal Management Areas, along the U.S. East Coast where most vessels 65 feet or longer must slow to 10 knots or less during times of the year when right whales are likely to be in the area. The idea behind the 10-knot limit is that the more slowly a vessel goes, the more time the whale has to get out of the way, and a strike at that speed is less likely to be fatal. We have fined companies for violating these speed reductions.
Outside of these areas, if three or more right whales are sighted within close proximity to each other, we implement a short-term voluntary speed reduction area around those whales, called a Dynamic Management Area, and do our best to get the word out to all vessels to reduce their speed in these areas.
In the Northeast, we also implement analogous Right Whale Slow Zones when right whales are detected by acoustic receivers. Unfortunately, studies have found that these voluntary measures are not sufficiently effective in modifying vessel speed or direction of travel, and therefore likely do little to reduce vessel collisions.
Implementing a Mandatory Vessel Reporting System for North Atlantic Right Whales
To further reduce the number of vessel strikes, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Coast Guard developed and implemented a mandatory vessel reporting system for North Atlantic right whales. When large vessels enter one of two key right whale habitats—one off the U.S. northeast coast and one off the U.S. southeast coast—they must report to a shore-based station. In return, the vessel receives a message about right whales, their vulnerability to vessel strikes, precautionary measures to avoid hitting a whale, and locations of recent sightings.
Implementing Right Whale Sighting and Notice Systems
To reduce vessel collisions with right whales, mariners are urged to use caution and proceed at safe speeds in areas where right whales occur. NOAA Fisheries and our partners developed an interactive mapping application that provides real-time information on North Atlantic right whale sightings along the East Coast of the United States.
Reducing Entanglement in Fishing Gear
Entanglement in fishing gear is a primary cause of serious injury and mortality for many whale species, including the North Atlantic right whale. With the help of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team—a group of advisors consisting of fishermen, scientists, and state and federal officials—we have developed management measures to reduce whale entanglements. We require commercial fishermen to use certain gear modifications that are less harmful to North Atlantic right whales, and have established areas where fishing cannot take place during certain times when North Atlantic right whales are present. Specifically, we have taken both regulatory and non-regulatory steps to reduce the threat of entanglement to North Atlantic right whales, including:
- Implementing seasonal closures to fixed gear commercial fisheries in a number of areas of predictable aggregations of right whales
- Requiring weak links in fixed gear fisheries fishing to increase the likelihood that right whales can break free of buoy lines and gillnet panels
- Requiring sinking line (versus floating) between trap/pots on the bottom of the ocean
- Mandating gear marking to improve our understanding of where and how right whales become entangled
- Increasing outreach and education
- Improving our stranding response
We are currently developing management measures to reduce the number and strength of buoy lines in the water column in an effort to further reduce the risk of entanglement in fishing gear.
In addition, we are actively working with fishermen to test ropeless fishing gear systems which we anticipate will provide future options to prevent large whale entanglement.
In addition, when entangled whales are reported anywhere along the U.S. East Coast, the NOAA-funded Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network is called upon to try to help. The network is made up of emergency responders from 20 public and private organizations who have extensive training in how to disentangle large whales and increase their odds of surviving. The Network has successfully disentangled close to 30 North Atlantic right whales over the years. Examining gear removed from entangled animals is one of the key ways for us to determine whether regulations are working and fishing gear modifications are effective.
Addressing Ocean Noise
Underwater noise threatens marine animal populations, interrupting their normal behavior and driving them away from areas important to their survival. NOAA Fisheries is investigating all aspects of acoustic communication and hearing in marine animals, including the effects of sound on whale behavior and hearing. In 2016, we issued technical guidance for assessing the effects of anthropogenic sound on marine mammals’ hearing.
Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events
There is an ongoing Unusual Mortality Event for North Atlantic Right Whale. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, an unusual mortality event is defined as "a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response." Scientists carefully study unusual mortality events, to determine the cause of these events and better understand the health of marine mammal populations.
Overseeing Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response
We work with volunteer networks in all coastal states to respond to marine mammal strandings. When stranded animals are found alive, NOAA Fisheries and our partners assess the animal’s health. When stranded animals are found dead, our scientists work to understand and investigate the cause of death. Although the cause often remains unknown, scientists can sometimes identify strandings due to disease, harmful algal blooms, vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements, pollution exposure, and underwater noise. Some strandings can serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues that may also have implications for human health and welfare.
NOAA Fisheries is actively collaborating with Canada through ongoing bilateral negotiations on the science and management gaps that are impeding the recovery of North Atlantic right whales in both Canadian and U.S. waters.
Key Actions and Documents
NOAA Fisheries conducts various research activities on the biology, behavior, and ecology of the North Atlantic right whale. The results of this research are used to inform management decisions and enhance recovery efforts for this endangered species.
We use a variety of methods to determine where right whales are located, including surveys with boats and planes, underwater acoustic listening devices, habitat modeling, and citizen science sighting reports. To better inform the public of the most recent right whale sightings, NOAA scientists maintain a database that displays real-time sightings on an interactive map. These data, along with those maintained by our partners at the New England Aquarium, includes more than 40 years of reliable sightings data, spanning the entire range of the species from Canada through Florida.
NOAA is working hard to develop a tag that will stay attached to right whales without compromising the health of these animals given their precarious state and poor condition. Right whales are especially challenging to keep long term tags attached since they often engage in physical contact with each other, putting tremendous stress on tags attached to their bodies. They also lack a dorsal fin which is a commonly used attachment point in other species.
Scientists use small aircraft to spot North Atlantic right whales and photograph them to identify individuals and record their seasonal distribution. Understanding the whales’ distribution patterns helps managers establish measures to reduce vessel strikes and fisheries interactions. NOAA Fisheries and our partners also use small unmanned aircraft systems (drones) to assess individual right whale size and body condition, as well as taking breath samples to analyze factors such as genetics and stress hormones.
In addition to aerial surveys, we conduct vessel surveys that investigate the whales’ habitat preferences and feeding ecology, as well as collect photographic and genetic identification. Information from this research can be used to inform management actions that protect the North Atlantic right whale.
As with our aerial surveys, the goals of many shipboard surveys are to photograph as many individual right whales as possible, so we concentrate on places where we are most likely to find them at the surface, aggregating to feed or engage in social behaviors. This helps us accurately estimate the population size and monitor population trends. The photographs and other data collected (time, date, location, behavior) are used by researchers to investigate things like body condition, behavior, and life history. Over time, these data can also reflect changes in distribution.
If the whales aren’t feeding or socializing at the surface, their behavior can make them hard to spot (for example, if they’re engaged in deep dives or traveling while submerged). Sea state and weather also make it more challenging to spot whales.
Acoustics is the science of how sound is transmitted. This research involves increasing our understanding of the basic acoustic behavior of whales, dolphins, and fish; mapping the acoustic environment; and developing better methods using autonomous gliders and passive acoustic arrays to locate cetaceans.
We use underwater microphones to listen for right whale calls. This is another way to learn more about where and when these whales are present in different areas (at least during times they are vocalizing) where visual surveys are not likely to be effective. For example, acoustic detections have shown that at least some right whales can be detected year-round in locations we thought were once only seasonally used.
Other research is focused on the acoustic environment of cetaceans, including North Atlantic right whales.
Determining the size of the North Atlantic right whale population—and whether it is increasing or decreasing from year to year—helps resource managers assess the success of the conservation measures enacted. Our scientists collect population information on right whales from various sources and present the data in an annual stock assessment report.
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